Religion is not just what the rabbis wrote but what people practiced throughout the ages,” says Elisheva Baumgarten, an award-winning author and academician who will be the first female scholar-in-residence at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, March 27 and 28.
Baumgarten, director of the Fanya Gottesman Heller Center for the Study of Jewish Women at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, is prominent in Israel’s Modern Orthodox feminist movement.
“But this has nothing to do with my job as a historian,” she told The Jewish Standard. “My talk can be given in any community, because it’s about the past and not the present. My audiences can draw whatever conclusions they want to draw about how the Jewish past reflects on the Jewish present.”
The choice of an Orthodox woman as a scholar for a Conservative synagogue “is reflective of our openness to hearing from different perspectives and engaging with those perspectives,” said Rabbi Neil Tow. “We have a diverse community – from those who identify as Jews [only] culturally to those who are shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant] and everything in between.”
The historian herself sees common ground with her Glen Rock audience. “I don’t think you can talk about ‘one Judaism,'” she said. “There was always a formula for being Jewish in each place and each time, and traditional Judaism has indeed changed. Conservative Judaism knows that well; it’s always adapted itself to the time period and has acted accordingly. To say ‘Judaism was always …’ is wrong.”
Tow sought out Baumgarten after learning that the Jerusalem resident is spending this year as a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies’ School of Historical Studies at Princeton University.
“This is a unique opportunity to take advantage of someone who’s a dynamic speaker and can share compelling, interesting, challenging ideas that we can pursue,” said Tow. “People will find an interesting discussion of the development of the role of women in the Jewish community, both in the areas of intellectual history and also in the Jewish family.”
Baumgarten, a native New Yorker who earned her doctorate in medieval Jewish history from Hebrew University, won the Koret Foundation Prize for best Jewish history book in 2005 for “Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe.” She is using research grants to study gender and piety in that period.
“I’m really interested in how medieval European Jews dealt with the majority community around them,” she said. “It’s important to see the creativity and adaptation. Different denominations have found different solutions for what are still significant topics in our lives today as Jews, and it’s interesting to learn how these issues were dealt with in the past.”
At the Jewish Center, she will be joined by her husband, Yaacov Deutsch, and their four children.
On next Friday night, following services, Baumgarten is to lecture briefly on “Finding Jewish Women in the Sources,” focusing on “how you can reread the Bible and the difference that makes in history.”
At approximately 11:45 the next morning, she will present “Divorce Medieval Style,” an analysis of how Jewish legal decisors changed their opinions over time, and why. The discussion will focus on letters sent years apart by an estranged husband and wife to the 12th-century philosopher and scholar Maimonides and his responses to them.
That evening at 8, Baumgarten will explore the lives of medieval Jewish women in Germany and France, “not just their active role in religious life but how that changed over time,” she said. “Women were much more active, and then later their participation was curtailed. What changed? And how can that help us understand community dynamics?”
All three presentations are open free of charge not only to the 240 member-families but also to the wider community.
“I hope my listeners come away understanding that history is not uniform,” said Baumgarten. “There were creative ways to deal with challenges, and we need to be equally creative today.”
Though advocating for advancements in the role of women in Orthodoxy “causes an uproar,” said Baumgarten, she maintains that there is ample historical precedent if one digs deeply enough into the past.
“History is always written by the ‘winners,’ in this case the rabbis,” she said. “The people who were part of the story along the way have their own story to tell.”
For reservations, call (201) 652-6624 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.